On a night of solid semifinal performances, here's hoping at least one under-the-radar contestant sails through to the top 12

By Michael Slezak
Updated March 04, 2009 at 05:00 PM EST
Credit: Ju'Not Joyner: Frank Micelotta/American Idol/Getty Images

Maybe it’s the chest cold I’ve been fighting for the last five days, or maybe it’s overriding concern/excitement/bewilderment regarding American Idol‘s upcoming Wild Card round, but somewhere during tonight’s Group 3 semifinal telecast, I ran out of cynicism. Oh sure, it wasn’t lost on me that the producers handed the pimp spot (shocker!) to Lil Rounds. Or that Jorge Nuñez was treated to adoring close-ups and ridiculous split-screen action. Or that the judges somehow managed to subtly campaign for Scott MacIntyre despite their criticisms of his song choice and his vocal performance.

You see, normally, any one of those manipulations would send me into a white-hot rage, especially considering three other terrific contestants — Ju’Not Joyner, Kristen McNamara, and Felicia Barton — saw their own hopes for the season 8 finals dimmed by said imbalances. But tonight, I’m oddly calm. And when I think long and hard about it, it’s because deep down, I know it would be insincere for me to argue against any one of the six aforementioned contestants scoring a spot in the final 12.

Oh sure, for my money, I’d take Ju’Not’s gorgeous restraint over Jorge’s unrepentant bombast, and choose Kristen’s saucy vocal stylings over Scott’s pleasant but milquetoast tendencies. And, well, if I’m going to get behind a sweet diva mom who offers powerful (if not entirely original) renditions of recent R&B hits, there’s part of me that wants to crankily side with the one who hasn’t been forced on me like lima beans to a grade-schooler, even if the more hyped one sang better.

But whatever. When it comes to Idol heartbreak, there are far worse cases than a ”Lil-or-Felicia” death match. Heck, this season alone, we’ve seen Michael Sarver (how lucky does dude look now?) pilfer a Silver Stool of Safety that should’ve gone to Anoop Desai or Ricky Braddy. And looking back on the show’s long and controversial history, outrage in the Idol nation over a ”Jorge-over-Ju’Not” (or ”Ju’Not-over-Jorge”) vote-off would be infinitesimal compared to the Doomsday scenarios of yesteryear — like Jasmine Trias over Jennifer Hudson, or Haley Scarnato over Sabrina Sloan. (Yeah, the latter decision still stings.)

In other words, when I finish an Idol semfinal telecast and realize I’ve gotten at least some enjoyment from nine of the 12 performances, I know I’d better stifle my inner Cranky McCrankenpants, try to tune out the off-key caterwauling of the Idol backup singers, and let my inner Paula go run through the poppy fields. (Blame that last sentence on the Mucinex, people! I told you I have a chest cold!)

NEXT: Ju’Not, your are good

All those good, non-compeitive vibrations aside, though, if I had the power to send just one of tonight’s contestants directly to the finals (without passing the Wild Card, and without collecting $200) it would undoubtedly be Ju’Not. I loved that the affable dad chose a song that was written this decade. I loved the way he clearly felt every word of ”Hey There Delilah” to the tips of his toes, infusing new meaning into a song that’s been played so much, it usually sends me into emotional autopilot. And I especially loved the restraint Ju’Not showed in his vocals, refusing to engage in the standard Idol game of vocal acrobatics, sticking mostly to the melody except for that lovely falsetto run near the end.

Most of all, though, I dug the way Ju’Not completely changed up the Plain White T’s acoustic number into a soulful and sultry ballad. On a night when the other standout performances were merely excellent carbon copies of the originals, I was slightly baffled by the judges’ failure to recognize Ju’Not’s originality. (Not even a ”made it your own” from Paula?) Instead, we had Simon labeling the performance as ”a little bit safe,” and Kara noting that Ju’Not was ”holding back” (as if it was a negative). Part of me wondered if Idol‘s producers were frantically yelling into the judges’ earpieces: ”Hey! Hey! He’s not one of the chosen ones! He wasn’t supposed to be this good! Your critiques must reflect the Producers’ World Order!”

Oh wait. Sorry. I’m supposed to be out of cynicism. Let us return now to this week’s shiny, happy TV Watch by repeating the sound bite of the night, also courtesy of Ju’Not: ”I had a cortisone shot…right in my butt.”

Alrighty, then, moving right along to the other contestant who got short shrift from the judges tonight…let’s put our hands together and welcome the lovely and talented Kristen McNamara to the Lido Deck! Actually, on second thought, let’s help Kristen escape from the Lido Deck, since Rickey Minor and the Backing Musicians from Hell seemed to be playing ”Give Me One Reason” as if they were overlooking the buffet table on a Carnival Cruise.

Honestly, I appreciated Kristen’s attempt to change up the tempo and infuse Tracy Chapman’s stripped-down blues ditty with an extra jolt of brass and sass — which is actually more than Jordin Sparks did back in season 6 — and if you could separate her vocal from the absolutely wretched keyboard line that haunted her every note, the performance was a smashing success. But, of course, instead of commenting on the fact that the adorable underdog didn’t miss a single note of her performance, Simon decided to point out that she looked like she was dressed by her mother. Honestly, I thought the rosette shoulders and pink ribbon trim on Kristen’s dress were cute (bonus points for those gold shoes!) but she brushed off the criticisms nicely, ending a monologue about her lifelong struggle with fashion by noting: ”Maybe I just need to hire a stylist.” Here’s hoping someone on the panel — Paula, you may be our only hope! — gives Kristen a Wild Card performance slot, since I don’t see her getting past either Lil or Felicia in the popular vote.

Ah, but is it possible Lil and Felicia might advance Wednesday night, putting an end to the two-men-one-woman voting pattern we saw during the first two weeks of the semifinals? If I had to bet every dollar in my wallet, I’d say yes, considering that both women commanded the Idol stage tonight as if it was mid-May at the Kodak, not early March on some dinky studio stage.

Of the two, Lil offered the slightly stronger vocal, though I thought she struggled with her lower register and the tricky syncopation of the opening verse of ”Be Without You” — even if the judges failed to call her on it.

NEXT: Pimping it out

Now let me just pause for a moment to admit that part of me grumbled a little that for the third week running, the producers handed the final performance spot to the contestant who’d far and away received the greatest amount of screen time and hype. And I grumbled some more when Ryan gave her the extra special intro — ”the big voice of Lil Rounds!” And while I know it’s not fair to blame Lil — after all, it’s not as if she controls the preordained contestant pecking order — I find it maddening that the producers are so blatant about stacking the deck. If Ken Warwick & Co. truly believe Lil is a must-have component of a successful Top 12, don’t they have faith that the viewing public will see that same talent, whether she performs third or tenth or twelfth?

Let’s take a poll: How many times over the next 12 weeks will a contestant other than Lil, Adam, or Danny score the pimp spot? I’m guessing three. Place your bets, people!

Okay, end of rant. Lil got stronger and looser as the performance continued, and I got a chuckle when she changed the lyric ”call the radio if you just can’t be without your baby” to ”call this show if you just can’t be without me baby.” I’ll admit: It was a nice way to end the performance — and the show — even if Simon’s declaration that it was his favorite performance of the night ”by a mile” felt too overzealous by half.

Felicia, meanwhile, proved to have an equally muscular set of pipes on Alicia Keys’ similarly rousing and romantic ”No One” — and I appreciated the way she ripped into the song as if she wanted a round-one TKO, even if it meant she lost control of the vocal on one or two big notes. As Simon noted, Felicia ”certainly came back [from prior elimination] to prove a point,” and it wouldn’t surprise me if that point is the same one Kris Allen and Allison Iraheta made last week: It only takes one big performance to erase a screen-time deficit.

NEXT: Scott and Jorge

Of course, if Felicia and Lil claim two of the Group 3 finalist slots, that leaves Ju’not competing for just one coveted position against Scott and Jorge. And while I would contend Ju’Not has a far better chance of selling records in a post-Idol world, I’m also admittedly not a gigantic fan of the Lite-FM kind of format that Scott and Jorge seem so squarely (pun intended) aimed at.

Scott’s song choice — Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s ”Mandolin Rain” — wasn’t exactly the height of hip back when it first came out in the mid-’80s, and while I understand un-hip doesn’t necessarily mean un-good — you will, after all, find artists from Basia to Vanessa Williams on my iPod menu — it scares me a little that this was the first impression the dude wanted to make on the live Idol stage. Not only that, Scott needs to be careful of veering off pitch when he pushes his vocals — despite what Kara said about things like pitch not mattering when it comes to the visually impaired charmer.

Getting past his song choice, though, there is something undeniably pleasant about the tone of Scott’s voice, not to mention the way he conducts himself in his interviews. His offer to allow Ryan a second attempt at an awkward high-five with him (this time with a ”stationary target”) was one of the night’s funniest moments, and he’s so gosh-darn likeable, I’ll resist pleading for Scott to buzz those wayward, over-teased locks if he makes the likely trip to the top 12 tomorrow.

If anyone thwarts Scott’s ”journey,” I’m guessing it’ll be the grown man who shed real tears after his performance of the done-to-death-on-Idol ”Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Yes, Jorge, you now join the ranks of David Archuleta, Bo Bice, Clay Aiken, Justin Guarini, and Jasmine Trias, among the former Idol contestants who’ve tackled this treacle-y chestnut. And while the good news is that you hit pretty much every note of the song, and came across swimmingly during your post-performance interview, you’d still only rank No. 5 (ahead of Jasmine, naturally) in the ”Don’t Let the Sun” Power Rankings. Why? Well, the whole thing was awfully overwrought, dude. I mean, when each word is sung at Full Emotional Throttle, it kind of leaves the performance without any way to crescendo, y’know?

Still, your failure in the historic arena may not count as much as the fact that you got some very special small-screen effects this evening. The pimp lighting! The (odd? moving?) split screen, in which your striking profile appeared to be looking down upon a tiny, crouched version of yourself, and lending that mini-you some sweet, sweet harmony! The power of those visual cues, combined with the power of your post-performance waterworks, and a really solid punch line (”When I get so emotional, I can barely think in English”) might add up to a lot of votes, but I’m guessing you’re gonna have to rely on the Wild Card. That said, if you stick around for the top 12, I’m with Simon: Let that accent fly! You’re from Puerto Rico, not Port, Oklahoma.

NEXT: The night’s grades

As for the remaining six contestants, I suspect it’ll have to be an honor just to have made it this far. True, strange things happen on this show, as Simon noted after Kendall Beard’s fair-to-middling ”This One’s for the Girls,” but really, when Paula compliments your outfit (with a belt that might look nice as part of a front-door Thanksgiving display) and says something as ominous as ”I hope you enjoyed [your performance],” you’re probably toast. Maybe Kendall should’ve tried rocking her dad’s awesome alligator dance rather than standing frozen in one position at center stage?

As much of a longshot as Kendall is, though, I think she’ll probably score more votes than poor Von Smith, whose performance tonight on ”You’re All I Need to Get By” was wildly over-praised by the judges. Sure, the Artist Formerly Known as Shouty McShouterson proved to be a good listener when he dialed it back about 20 notches from his Hollywood Week histrionics, but unfortunately, Von 2.0 came with a very unsteady lower register and a wicked case of visible nerves. Watching the little guy out there in his stripy red v-neck, mouth popping open intermittently, I couldn’t help but think of his future as a supporting player in Broadway’s 2011 version of Finding Nemo: The Musical. Von, however, wins bonus points for the absolute cutest family of the night.

Alex Wagner-Trugman, on the other hand, probably doesn’t have a great future in singing, after his growly, mostly in key, but decidedly karaoke take on ”I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” But that doesn’t mean the kid shouldn’t think about sticking with the stage. There’s something so delightfully goofy about the guy, I’d almost like the producers to keep him around for occasional spurts of comic relief when weekly results-night proceedings get too heavy. I mean, people who found Norman Gentle amusing must’ve busted their guts from Alex’s far superior shtick about his weight-training regimen of ”short reps of low weight.” As Paula so aptly put it, the guy gave us our money’s worth, even if we’re not sure how much money was spent.

Nathaniel Marshall seemed to be straddling the vocalist-clown fence as well, but by the time he finished with all his bopping and arm-gesturing on ”I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” the headband-sporting teen had veered more into ”sad clown” territory for me, which became all the more waah-waahn once Ryan tried to cajole Nathaniel to flirt with Simon — because, really, we needed the homophobic ”is he or isn’t he?” Ryan-Simon banter to extend into an eighth season.

The detour into the Three’s Company era, though, was good news for Arianna Afsar, since it meant there was something less appetizing happening on stage tonight than her rendition of Abba’s ”The Winner Takes It All,” during which the ”cute as a button” teen was seemingly backed by one guy on an ’80s era Casio. I’m not sure if Arianna was ahead of the music or behind it; all I know is I didn’t want to listen any more carefully to figure it out.

And then there was Taylor Vaifanua, whose performance I have already forgotten, but whose critique from Kara — ”What’s it like to go shopping with you?” — will live on forever. To quote the still-quick-on-his-feet Simon put it: ”What breakfast cereal do you like?”

Pure poetry, people. Pure poetry.

On that note, tonight’s letter grades — brought to you by The Doll Bachelor!

Ju’Not Joyner: A-

Kristen McNamara: B+

Lil Rounds: B+

Felicia Barton: B

Scott MacIntyre: B

Jorge Nunez: B

Kendall Beard: C+

Von Smith: C+

Alex Wagner-Trugman: C-

Taylor Vaifanua: C-

Nathaniel Marshall: D+

Arianna Afsar: D-

What did you think of the Group 3 performances? Would you agree with me they were the best overall vocals of all three weeks of semifinals? Who will and should go through to the finals? Who deserves a Wild Card? And what about this proposed ”Simon Cowell Week”: Awful or awesome? Holla!

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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